Should K-12 Schools Really Certify Their Own Teachers?

By Thomas Arnett

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Summit Public Schools recently made headlines with the launch of its new teacher residency program. Starting this month, Summit’s first cohort of 24 resident teachers began a one-year program that will earn them a California teaching credential. The residency will fully immerse them in the workings of Summit schools, and their coursework will happen through Summit’s online learning platform. This is a unique—but not unheard of—move in K–12 education.

Summit’s new teacher residency places it among Los Angeles Unified and San Diego Unified—the state’s two largest districts—and the High Tech High charter schools as one of the few California K–12 school operators that also prepares teachers. All told, the state of California authorizes 93 different institutions to prepare prospective teachers to receive their preliminary teaching credentials; but the vast majority of these institutions are colleges and universities.

Meanwhile, only seven of California’s roughly 1,025 school districts and 1,222 charter schools run state-approved programs for preparing teachers. Looking across the broader United States, there are just a handful of other charter management organizations that precede Summit in the business of teacher preparation, as I’ve documented in an earlier paper.

Innovation theory gives a clear rationale for why this strategy makes sense for operators like Summit and what it might mean for the future of teacher preparation. Indeed, Summit’s strategy to create its own teacher supply pipeline is not without parallel in other industries. Organizations often bring the design and production of raw materials or subcomponents in-house when the quality or availability of those inputs constrains the quality or performance of their final products.

For example, World War I led to shortages that made it hard for the Ford Motor Company to get high-quality raw materials on a reliable basis from its suppliers. Henry Ford’s solution: create mines, railways, steel mills and rubber plantations to ensure that his automobile factory had what it needed to keep cars rolling off the assembly line.

Fast forward to today, and we see a similar pattern playing out in the tech industry. Software companies like Google and Microsoft are entering the computer chip business because the effectiveness of their artificial intelligence technology depends not just on the code they create but on the design of the hardware that runs the code.

Clayton Christensen’s theory of interdependence and modularity explains why players like Summit, Ford, Google and Microsoft find themselves compelled to expand into upstream segments of their value chains. When an organization needs to improve the performance of its products or services, the optimal strategy is to integrate across all the subsystems or parts of the value chain that affect performance. This gives the organization the greatest freedom to make its supply chain and its subcomponents align with its particular needs.

As Summit’s chief academic officer, Adam Carter, told Education Week, “As we grow, where do we find teachers who can enact personalized learning from the get-go? … Currently, our teachers have to come in and quickly get up to speed. … Residents will have time to build up their comfort with working within our context.”

But while Summit and other pioneers are forging a path into teacher preparation—with both history and theory to back them up—several barriers make this a difficult route to take. For one, states don’t typically give K–12 schools funding to offer teacher prep, which means school systems need either philanthropic funding or the scale of a Los Angeles Unified to get new programs off the ground.

Second, state teacher education policies generally hold up university-based teacher preparation as the model that all programs should emulate. This means new teacher preparation programs often have to adopt many of the expensive and innovation-constraining trappings of higher education in order to get state approval.

Summit’s new program was years in the making as its leaders worked through the hurdles associated with getting it launched. Now it will be interesting to see how this experiment plays out. Will the residency produce the quality of teachers Summit hopes to deliver, and will their personalized-learning-focused training enhance Summit’s efforts to keep improving its K–12 schools? Will the residency be financially sustainable in the long run without philanthropic support? Could tuition for the program become a new revenue source for Summit? And what role will the residency program play as Summit adds campuses and expands its network of partner schools?

If Summit’s personalized learning model proves to be highly successful with its partner schools, graduates of its residency program may come to be in high demand. And in the longer term, if Summit’s goal to propagate personalized learning throughout K–12 education comes to fruition, traditional university-based teacher education programs may need to take note.

For more, see:

Thomas Arnett is a Senior Research Fellow at Clayton Christensen Institute. Follow him on Twitter: @ArnettTom

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Smart Review | Rethinking Readiness: Deeper Learning for College, Work, and Life

The times they are a changin’.

It’s an undeniably powerful sentiment, and one that can be felt throughout the recently released Rethinking Readiness: Deeper Learning for College, Work, and Life.

The latest from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, Rethinking Readiness is a compilation of ten whitepapers written by the Jobs For the Future team, featuring entries by writers such as Pedro Noguera and Linda Darling-Hammond, and edited by contributing authors Rafael Heller, Rebecca E. Wolfe and Adria Steinberg.

If you’ve ever googled a phrase like “college readiness” or “deeper learning” and found a hundred resources each giving you a different prescriptive way to adhere to the latest buzzword, prepare to not be disappointed by Rethinking Readiness.

Rather than advocate for a certain form of deeper learning (which they argue could in many cases be replaced with other popular but vague concepts such as social-emotional learning or 21st-century skills) for post-secondary readiness, this collection seeks to encourage “truly open-ended debate” on the following question: “If college, career, and civic readiness require more than just higher academic standards and tougher accountability–the focus of most education policy making over the last few decades–then what are the implications for schools, educators, and students?”

As such, the book offers an impressive range of research-based food for thought regarding student readiness without advocating for any one “best” answer to the issues facing education today.

The organizational structure takes the reader through a logical flow from “where we are and how we got here” to “equity in access and opportunity” to “school improvement,” and the authors touch on arguments for, among many other things, the need for a new approach to readiness that goes beyond the age-old debate of “skills vs. content” and the importance of mastery and public demonstrations of it. The final section includes a number of in-depth looks at examples of what teaching, leadership and assessment can look like in light of these findings.








Because of the book’s focus on non-prescriptiveness, it can provide a great foundation for exploring new ideas, and the impressive endnote citation list makes for an almost endless potential deeper dive. Unfortunately, this approach may occasionally leave the reader wanting more (the section on supporting ELL students, for example, provides some great research-based perspective on challenges and opportunities in the space of preparing ELL and immigrant students for post-secondary success, but still left me with a distinct feeling that I was leaving with more questions than I came with).

However, I agree with the authors that even if it doesn’t end with an entirely satisfying feeling, this is probably the best approach to the discussion of these sorts of issues. Addressing racial disparities and supporting immigrants are among the most important challenges facing education today, and they are challenges that will look very different in different settings. Here, more than in most areas of education, there will not be one “best” solution (though some readiness initiatives are generating data that supports progress for previously underserved students, like this one, in which over the course of six years the number of students with college-ready transcripts rose from 37% to 56%).

And anyway, questions are an important part of the growing process and failing forward.

If you’re looking to expand the horizons of your approach to post-secondary readiness with a research-based 30,000 feet approach to the “why” and “how,” then gather round, people–wherever you roam. Rethinking Readiness can serve as a fount of ideas.

For more on readiness, see:

Solving the EdTech Gap for Early Learners

As the mother of a busy two-year-old, early learning has become more important to me than ever. Not just the theory behind why it’s so important, but also everything I still need to learn about what I can actually do–the apps, programs, books, toys, experiences and schools that are available to help best prepare my daughter for grade school.

So much of who my toddler will become and how she’ll learn and excel in school starts now. But amongst potty training, well child exams, snack retrieval, nap times, meal time protests and everything else that comes along with parenting, it can be overwhelming. Being a “Smart Parent” can be a tough challenge to navigate.

Depending on who you talk to, screen time can be a tricky conversation. In our home, we limit screen time, but if you’ve ever tried to get ready for work with a toddler you know what it means to “call in reinforcements”–aka the iPad. Working in education, I’ve done my fair share of research, so I’m always on the hunt for the best app or game for my daughter to play.

Lately, she’s been obsessed with YouTube Kids (aren’t all children?), and loves to watch Play-Doh videos where they build shapes, talk about colors and sometimes even weave in emotions and daily activities (eating, resting, playing, bath time etc.). Just last week while using the iPad she started pointing to and saying the names of the colors in the video, and was so excited to show me everything she knew. Parenthood comes with constant worry, but in that moment I knew that the relatively small amount of time she’s using the iPad isn’t a bad thing, and is in fact helping her learn, interact with the world around her and get excited about learning.

One thing I’ve found while searching the app store is that there isn’t enough information about app capabilities or how they may relate to my child’s developmental stages and needs. Additionally, my nephew has just wrapped up PreK and will be headed to Kindergarten next month, but he didn’t have any tech in his curriculum during PreK. When you hear from most PreK program leaders, they’re often stumped on what tech/apps are best to use, and where to use them. There is a clear need for tech-enabled resources and content that can be embedded into a young learner’s other experiences in school.

Earlier this month, NewSchools Venture Fund released a Market Gap Snapshot: a compilation of research and findings that uncovered unmet needs in EdTech tools tailored specifically for PreK through 2nd-grade learners. Tools that students, teacher and parents could use to help enhance student interactions, create engaging, interactive experiences for students that support their academic and social-emotional development, and expand opportunities for families to discover developmentally-appropriate learning experiences.

Those findings have fueled the latest ed tech funding opportunity from NewSchools–the NewSchools Ignite Early Learning Challenge – PreK-2–which is calling for entrepreneurs to develop tech-enabled learning experiences, content, diagnostics and administrative tools that support young learners.

Some findings to consider:

  • Children who don’t attend preschool are developmentally behind by almost a year or more by the time they enter Kindergarten.
  • 60 percent of four-year-olds are not enrolled in publicly funded preschool programs.
  • A child’s learning experiences in pre-kindergarten through early elementary are shaped by many factors, including race and income.
  • Parents want to use educational technology to understand their child’s early learning goals in school and better assist their children at home with learning challenges.

I had a chance to talk with Tonika Cheek Clayton, Managing Partner at NewSchools, about these findings, and how NewSchools is approaching tech for early learners. “A big key to student learning at an early age is centered around their interaction with adults and other kids their age. Technology in early learning is not meant to take that away, but instead enhance and improve those interactions,” said Tonika.

The NewSchools Ignite Early Learning Challenge – PreK-2 is offering funding for innovative teams of educators and entrepreneurs who are creating EdTech tools that address the needs of early learners during a crucial time for their development. These tools should be made for use by students, teachers and/or parents, and submissions are due by Thursday, August 31st. Enter today!

Stay tuned, and we’ll share more about the winners once announced! In the meantime, what’s your favorite educational app for a PreK-2nd grade student? Tweet us @Getting_Smart, or leave a note in the comments section below!

For more on early learning, see:

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Global Education For All

In a little over four months, twenty students, two teachers and I will leave for Thailand, where we will live through mid-April of 2018 with support from Thrival Academy: Indy, a free pilot program at Arsenal Tech High School this year (which will hopefully open its doors as a free public charter school for the 2018-19 school year).

The program offers study abroad and global education to students from all backgrounds, particularly students from underserved communities, covering all expenses related to the study abroad experience for participants including passport and visa fees.

Our goal is for each Thrival student to come back equipped with the tools to effect positive change in their respective local communities as well as the global community. We feel it’s important to invest in the progress of our communities through community-based learning, both locally and abroad, and develop our students into leaders. We work to open their minds to the many possibilities for their lives they may have never even considered before their year with us.

Student Community Action

The foundation of our school year is problem-solving around community issues; before we leave for Thailand, Thrival Indy students work to identify issues plaguing their local community such as food deserts, water inequality and civil liberties. Then we as a school create and execute plans of action to address these issues.

Our goal is that before we arrive in Thailand, our Indianapolis community knows exactly who Thrival: Indy students are and how they contribute to improving our city. It is important that our students are able to identify comparisons between local and global issues and how they have been addressed and are able to create actionable plans to address issues in their own communities.

For example, our first probability & statistics/environmental science unit began with videos and articles about the Flint, Michigan, water crisis. Students then spent the next week collecting water samples from the twelve buildings on our high school campus. Using the sampling methods the students learned, they tested the pH levels of each of the water samples and developed generalizations about the water on their campus.

Taking the project a step further, the students collected water samples from different types and brands of bottled water and tracked those pH levels as well. This will all tie back into our classroom discussion about the water crisis as students work to collect water bottle donations to be sent to Flint, Michigan.

Last year’s Thrival Academy: Oakland students researched organic farming techniques as part of an environmental science/English unit, and then they had the opportunity to interview both organic and traditional farmers and participate in homestays with farmers and their families in Thailand. This is a unit we plan to implement again this school year, including a research of urban farms in Indianapolis and how they are working to combat food deserts.

Blended Learning For Graduation

Our students reach their third year of high school with various needs and, as their educators, we are responsible for meeting each and every one of them. With the help of two online learning platforms, PLATO and Summit Learning, we are able to get creative with the scheduling so that all of our students get the courses necessary to fulfill their individual graduation requirements.

Our teachers, Ms. Yang and Ms. Esteves, are responsible for teaching coursework and facilitating the learning for a total of thirteen different courses for our students. Scheduling has been a challenge, but we have finally worked through the kinks that come along with only having two teachers for twenty high schoolers, and the students are starting to get the hang of online learning.

Thrival Indy students experience a unique take on blended learning; they each take two 100-minute blocked courses (Probability & Statistics/ Environmental Science and Government/English 11), which are interdisciplinary, project-based courses. They also take Thai language online along with an additional math course based on individual needs and an online elective, like art history.

Our campus in Udon Thani, Thailand, has wifi so the students will be able to complete their coursework, including the online courses, while we are there as well.

The campus where we stay in Thailand belongs to our partners at Rustic Pathways. They are responsible for planning and organizing student travel, including operations, logistics, safety and risk-management. The campus there is called “Ricefields Base.” This base has a multi-building dormitory, classroom spaces and communal open-air meeting and eating spaces. Thrival Indy teachers will continue to hold classes on the Ricefields Base daily, with the exception of off-campus excursions and projects.

Global Growth

As the mission of Thrival World Academies is to afford a global education to all students, regardless of background, Thrival Academy: Indy will expand our reach beyond the Ricefields Base in Thailand. As Rustic Pathways continues to grow, I hope to establish partnerships with campuses across the globe. Eventually, I would love to take a group of Indianapolis students to study abroad in Africa, Caribbean and South American countries as well.

In the past month, one phrase in particular has become my mantra. Innovation is messy. I came into this school year with nice, structured plans and I very quickly realized that the most critical attribute of an innovator in any sector is flexibility. Absolutely nothing goes as planned, and you have to be okay with that. Make a plan, watch your plan shatter into a million pieces, pick up those pieces, and make it happen anyway. These twenty students and two teachers have become my family, and I am excited for what this school year will bring.

For more, see:

India Hui is the Founding School Leader at Thrival Academy: Indy. Follow her on Twitter: @IndiaHuiEd

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Smart Review | Bridging the Language Barrier with TalkingPoints

As a parent, I can’t even begin to describe how important I think home to school/school to home communication is for my sanity and my child’s success. My son is a bit of a mad scientist, which is all well and good, but have you seen the inside of a mad scientist’s backpack? Probably not because they often forget to take it from Point A to Point B. If it makes it from Point A to Point B, the elusive red Take-Home folder might not be there.

As a teacher, when I need to make sure that those last three students bring in their permission slips for the field trip so my whole plan doesn’t implode, I don’t want to leave that responsibility up to these kiddos who keep forgetting. If you have all ultra responsible child students whose parents speak English fluently, with nary a mad scientist is in sight, you might not need TalkingPoints, an app that translates messages into multiple languages and allows group and individual messaging. But I’m guessing that isn’t many of you! Clearly, home to school/school to home communication can save the day, impacting students (and families) socially, emotionally and academically. This is especially true for ELL students, where communicating needs to their home can be a bit of a challenge.

The TalkingPoints app is effective because the platform is simple in design, allowing the actual service it delivers to take center stage. There aren’t tons of bells and whistles, which in this case is an excellent attribute, because when moving between languages simplicity is an asset. It is so easy to use that I uploaded it to my phone, input the names and phone numbers of some of my language teacher friends and sent them a message, all while having breakfast. All three teachers I messaged from the app had positive comments, noting the good translations. The potential for participation on a larger scale is clear, as language barriers are a challenge for so many schools (see how a district partnership looks here).

Additionally, at Global Concepts Charter School in Lackawanna, NY, where I was doing a literacy training, I spoke with their ENL team about the app, and several of the group had downloaded it after I mentioned it in my workshop. One teacher was trying out messages to her students’ parents. As I talked with these teachers, they emphasized that communication, in a family’s native language, is a win-win for everyone. The school’s philosophy (from their website) echoes this sentiment: We hope to work together with you to meet the needs of our students. We welcome and need parents’ involvement in the school. Children who see that their parents value education, take pride in their children’s work, and support the school in which they attend, grow to understand that education is an important part of their lives. In my own classroom, I’ve found this to be true as well.

The app allows teachers to follow one of the most significant best practices for communicating with ENL families: communicate in their own language. Though referring to Spanish, their advice can apply to any language: “Find a way to send home personal notes and materials in Spanish. This will keep parents in the loop on issues such as report cards, school events and homework. Try to offer complete translations in a straightforward Spanish that parents can understand.” All three teachers who tried the app noted that the translations were good.

The app itself is simple, but it is in its use that we can see how innovative it is for teachers and parents to collaborate in their native language. Socially, it is crucial for parents and students to feel they are accepted, and the self-management they are afforded when given control to communicate effectively is a boost in a family’s desire to participate in the school environment. Additionally, the emotional benefits for families are noteworthy. When parents and students are connected to the school experience, the more likely they are to promote education at home. This leads to the academic benefits, of course, as the entire family is invested in the child’s education, made possible by communicating in the language everyone is most comfortable “speaking.”

The app is loaded on my phone and shared with the ENL teacher on my team, and I’m excited to send my welcome message next week. More than my communicating to parents–which I have been in some predictable ways like their child translating for me–I’m looking forward to “hearing” the voice of parents because I believe it will impact not only them, but me, and when I am better, my ability to teach will be too.

For more on supporting English learners, see:

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The Intersection of Tech and Design for Impactful Education

By Rebecca Chang

The photos in this article were provided by Kurani / James Florio

We have all heard of the gap in STEM participation between men and women, and the similar gap between Caucasians and underrepresented minorities. With STEM jobs being one of the fastest growing sectors of the economy (a trend that is likely only to increase in impact), this situation must be remedied.

But what would a program designed to encourage minority participation look like? And what can teachers and schools do?

Google Takes a Step Forward

Stepping into Google’s Code Next Lab, one is instantly greeted by the excited chattering of young students, some seated in circular tables wiring circuit boards and others in front of 3D printers watching their latest creations come to life. To an outsider, it may seem disorienting to watch teens in control of laser cutters and 3D printers, but to the students, this is just another day at the lab.

The brainchild of Google’s Diversity & Inclusion Team, the Code Next Lab acts as a direct response to results from a Google-Gallup joint study in 2016 detailing strong interest in computer science from black and Latino students, but a lack of tech education opportunities in their schools. The study also discussed the representation of programmers in popular media, and how a lack of underrepresented minorities on screen leads to increased feelings of student “unbelonging” in tech.

Consequently, the Google team behind the project intentionally chose to house the lab in Fruitvale, Oakland, a predominantly black and Latino neighborhood. In doing so, they ensured not only easy access for students, but also proved to students that tech could happen right in their own neighborhood, contrary to the common narrative of tech centered in Silicon Valley.

The Code Next Lab is unique in combining its hands-on, project-based pedagogy with an interior design focusing on the past, present, and future of tech. Designed by Kurani, an architecture firm that creates custom educational spaces, the design concept of “Past, Present, Future” was chosen in order to inspire and motivate students in the lab.

Students first enter the lab through the Academic Enrichment space where classes are held. Illustrations of distinguished tech pioneers of color line the walls, such as Guillermo González Camarena, a Mexican engineer and inventor of color television, and Melba Roy, a black female mathematician and leader of NASA’s team of human computers during the space race.

“In a space that is supposed to inspire students, showing them role models who look like them was a crucial part in the design process,” said the namesake founder Danish Kurani.

Through the clear barn doors is the Maker Lab, where a laser cutter, Arduino kits, circuit boards, 3D printers, Makey Makeys and other tools are available for students to tinker and experiment. Here, the students are surrounded by display cases and other illustrations that demonstrate how tech is relevant to their everyday lives. One example is a display case entitled “Wearable Technology,” which shows how the inner parts of a pair of Beats headphones work together to transmit music. On another wall is an illustration of a hot-air balloon from Project Loon, one of Google’s experimental initiatives that attempts to use the balloons to increase Internet access in remote regions.

KURANI_Google Code Next Lab_FINALS-04_WEB.jpg

In-between the Academic Enrichment space and the Maker Lab is a small alcove signifying the future of tech. Painted a dark gray-black color, one’s eyes are directly drawn to the white platforms where student creations sit. The portfolio screen to the side also serves as another way to showcase student work through photographs, videos, or interactive apps. Because students are able to easily place their work on one of the platforms or upload it to the portfolio, this reinforces to students that they, too, are part of the future of tech and will define its trajectory.

Altogether, the lab’s “Past, Present, Future” theme brings together three different timelines surrounding tech to emphasize an important message that the students belong in tech and will go on to leave revolutionary impacts on the industry.

What Teachers and Schools Can Do

There is no one quick easy fix for the tech industry’s gaps in diversity and inclusion. There is a long way to go, but educational programs that are centered around the students–namely young black and Latino students–are what helps make the Google Code Next Lab space where design fosters learning, creativity, and confidence for underrepresented minorities. I have presented the example of Google’s Code Next Lab not to say that it is the only way to bring more black and Latino engineers to the table, but as an exmaple of one type of the many solutions that are needed.

Teachers and administrators must realize the pivotal roles they play in supporting their students of color who face increased systemic barriers in their education, particularly so in tech. This can be as far encompassing as a project like the Code Next Lab, but can also be as small as checking in every so often with students of color in the class. In fact, Dr. Cynthia Lee, a lecturer at Stanford’s computer science department, has compiled a great list of recommendations on what instructors in tech can do to better support underrepresented groups, although many of her suggestions can be carried over to any classroom.

Her list consists of a timeline with tips corresponding to the beginning, middle and end of a semester, as well as for any lecture day. She also includes general “do’s and don’t” advice that are great pointers for instructors looking to get concrete advice. Lastly, the best part is that almost all of Lee’s recommendations don’t require a huge budget or overhaul, but are still able to make a huge difference in making sure students feel supported and empowered.

Considering the exponential rate at which tech is growing, it is critical that we design the spaces where we educate the engineers and programmers of the future for inclusion. They have to inspire not just the majority of the students, but especially those who are underrepresented in the industry.

For more, see:

Rebecca Chang is a student at Haverford College.

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Dynamic Networks Focus on Learning Quickly

There’s not just one version of Facebook. “At any point in time there are probably 10,000 versions,” said CEO Mark Zuckerberg. “Any engineer can test something with 10,000 or 50,000 people, whatever is necessary to get a good test. Then, they get a read out of all of metrics we care about: how are people connecting and sharing, do people have more friends, does it improve efficiency?”

If it worked, the engineer takes the idea to a manager to incorporate into the base code. If not, they add it to the documentation of failed trials. As it approaches 2 billion users, Facebook remains a dynamic network where Zuckerberg says the goal is to “Learn as quickly as possible what our community wants us to do.”

Three things enable Facebook’s strategy of learn and go as fast as you can: a culture that encourages people to try things; infrastructure that allows people to do that (i.e., run 10,000 versions simultaneously); and a testing framework that helps determine how well the trial worked.

Most school networks don’t share those three characteristics. For example, Job Corps is an education and job training program of the Department of Labor that serves 60,000 youth ages 16-24 in 125 centers across the country (about 70 percent of the centers are managed by contractors).

This well intentioned $1.7B program costs over $25,000 per student. It claims to be “a holistic career development training approach” but the sites we’ve seen are depressing places where congressional regulations stifle innovations–the opposite of an adaptive, emergent and dynamic network. There are thousands of great teachers in Job Corp, but they are trapped in a compliance oriented system lacking the culture, infrastructure and data dashboard that drives Facebook forward.

Despite the fact that the Common Core Standards movement “sucked a lot of the innovation oxygen over last few years,” as one leading impact investor put it, in the last few years leading school networks have moved forward with many new projects. Technology startups by are, by nature, more dynamic than the more regulated public education, and for good reason: safety, privacy and equity are all important considerations. However, despite some limitations, there are a growing number of school networks trying to operate more like Facebook than Job Corp. They provide four lessons about dynamic networks.

1. Dynamic networks learn bottom up. Learning Assembly is a network of seven school support organizations. The network shares methods and infrastructure for piloting innovative teaching practices and tools. A network toolkit allows classroom teachers to support pilots from pilot planning to supporting implementation to reporting results. Through the 2016-17 school year, the network has applied and tested 100 tools in 195 schools.

Curtis Ogden, Interaction Institute, described dynamic networks as adaptable, where pushing responsibility out to the edges helps networks thrive. He suggests dynamic networks value contribution before credentials. “Seniority can serve as a bottleneck in many organizations where ego gets in the way of excellence,” he said.

2. Learn outside in. Smart networks take every opportunity to learn from developments outside the network. Harmony Public Schools, a big Texas school network, used a big federal grant to add project-based learning to their personalized learning model with a STEM theme.  

In Milwaukee, Carmen Schools of Science and Technology added career and technical education to their college preparation program.

In the lowly portable below, Da Vinci Schools piloted the blended and personalized learning model serving transient and foster kids in Los Angeles that won an XQ grant.

3. Update infrastructure. IDEA, a large Texas school network added blended learning to its high performing model.

After waves of local innovations in personalized learning, the national KIPP network is encouraging the use of a digital platform to extend the benefits of a core curriculum and character development resources. KIPP also connects with and supports graduates as the enroll, attend and complete college. (Three KIPP innovators made our list of 85 K-8 schools worth visiting.)

New Tech Network updated Echo, their project-based learning platform, to allow teachers to share project-based lessons, classroom resources and more professional learning experiences (listen to the podcast with art teacher Mauricio Olague, feature image).

4. Share generously. Dynamic networks encourage and reward contribution inside and outside the network. New Tech Network teachers contribute projects to the shared library.

Success Academies built a big school network that helped low-income New York City students outperform kids from the suburbs and then shared the formula with the world.

Summit Learning is an initiative of Summit Public Schools in an effort to share their platform and training with teacher teams around the country.

Curtis Ogden has a passion for regenerative networks, a subject he studies with Dr. Sally Goerner at the Research Alliance for Regenerative Economics. For lessons, they study healthy living systems–from agriculture to social systems–to understand resilient systems that renew themselves.

Ogden and Goerner found that regenerative networks: build connections (#1 above), they are transparent and vulnerable (#2 open to outside influence) and promote greater abundance by being generous and proactive about sharing lessons and capacity (#4). “Networks, or webs, are core to living systems,” said Ogden.

For more, see:

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Addressing Teacher Shortage: One Possible Solution, High Quality Online Learning

By Jessica Slusser and Adam Kulaas

Teacher shortages are creating access barriers in many communities. With hard to fill teaching positions that include everything from core content to dual language, future focused electives are becoming less of a priority to fill. This creates a scenario that “taxes” all community members by adding to teacher workload through class coverage, preparation in teaching areas that they have not been trained to deliver and reduced elective offerings based on staffing that conflicts with student choice, which can contribute to decreased buy in.

While some blame shortages on the teaching profession being deeply undervalued, in more rural districts it’s more a matter of logistics. Filling teacher positions for unique classes (think Mandarin, high-level language courses, coding etc.) paired with a lack of quality applicants for high-level courses can be troublesome for districts, in turn leaving students without access to courses they’re interested in or need for college and career.

Every state is dealing with different levels of shortages, and some are even driven to hire on emergency or temporary credentials to meet staffing needs, meaning teachers are in classrooms who aren’t necessarily prepared for the role. In other scenarios, some districts have been forced to increase class sizes, use short-term subs or cancel classes altogether. But one possible solution to help decrease shortages and increase student choice is online learning.

Think of it this way. You’re a school superintendent who has a small group of students interested in learning mandarin. You don’t have the interest to fill a full time teaching position, but by partnering with an online provider you can offer that mandarin class to your students (along with many other courses).

By acknowledging the teacher shortages that schools and districts are facing in the United States, we are given an opportunity to develop and find solutions that do not dilute content or rigor, while staying committed to each individual learner. When done with intentionality, we can successfully prepare students to learn through multiple modalities, increase access to content and accelerate preparation for post secondary learning platform options.

ASU Prep Digital is Arizona State University’s online high school for example. The online school combines high school and college in an online setting that creates an opportunity for students to earn college credit while completing their high-school requirements. In addition, ASU Prep Digital’s courses allow students to drive exploration in authentic, real-world simulations, scaffolded based on performance. Learners drive their experience and are given ample opportunity to use problem-solving skills and critical thinking.

ASU Prep Digital’s 45 online college prep high school courses and highly qualified teachers can support districts experiencing shortages and allow them to meet students where their passions reside and offer classes students desire, despite low enrollment or staffing shortages. Each learning module has built in formative self-assessments and formal exams to test the application of knowledge. For students who are unable to master a skill, who have disabilities or maybe only need one course and want to enroll in part time, there is also curated content available.

What’s Next?

The teacher shortage problem can be attributed to many different things, and the solution is much deeper than simply partnering with an online provider. We must begin to see a shift in teacher prep and training. In Preparing Teachers for Project-Based World we share the importance of preparing teachers by providing them the same innovative and engaging learning opportunities we want to provide for students.

ASU Prep Digital is working hard to change teacher prep to make sure teachers are properly trained and equipped with a suite of skills and tools they can pull from beyond content knowledge. They’re working closely with ASU to help inform them on what’s really needed from new educators entering the classroom. They’re exploring micro-credentials, teacher training, and other modalities to eventually create more and greater opportunities for educators.

For more, see:

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Creating Change-Agents: The Intersection of Critical Thinking and Student Agency

By Jenny Pieratt

The desire to foster critical thinking in our students is nothing new to the field of education; in fact the ambition to teach humans to think deeply dates back to early thinkers such as Aristotle, who once said: “It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.” As we push further into the 21st century we have rekindled the aspiration to develop critical thinkers who can solve complex problems and make changes.

Longitudinal studies have confirmed our fears that critical thinking as an “intellectual and practical skill seems to be a skill that the majority of students coming into higher education and the workforce are not only lacking in function, but also in understanding what the concept is.”

As educators we know that in order to develop the next generation with the skills to innovate and improve our world we can no longer teach students what to think–we must teach them how to think.

A Promising Framework for Critical Thinking

In 2013, the Hewlett Foundation published the first set of competencies that address the skills and demeanors of Deeper Learning. The Deeper Learning Competencies consist of six proficiencies that serve as a framework for educators looking to develop higher order thinking and design and facilitate engaging learning experiences.

One of these competencies provides a “north star” for how to foster active problem solvers by what Hewlett has termed “thinking critically and solving complex problems.” The eight descriptors within this specific competency pave the road for journeying toward our “north star” through skills such as identifying data, using tools of a specific discipline, constructing hypotheses and arguments, and displaying persistence.

This framework also provides a unique and important intersection between two interdependent skills: critical thinking and student agency. Student agency is best described by the body of research by Carol Dweck and Eduardo Briceno, and most easily digestible in the assessment tool descriptors created by New Tech Network in a partnership with SCALE.

Put simply, agency is the ability of a student to display a growth mindset, grit and ownership over their learning. Arguably, the ability to digest and analyze information critically is only important if a student can persevere through the challenges associated with the journey of thinking critically, and can then act upon this newfound knowledge in a way that brings meaning to the world around them.

So How Do We Do It?

We must explicitly teach the skills of critical thinking and agency in conjunction with one another. This requires having an ultimate vision for what we hope for students in the realm of these competencies and then scaffolding these skills through intentional exercises and activities that serve as building blocks.

We can go about this important work by doing the following:

Value the process alongside the content

Too often we are focused strictly on content outcomes and put off teaching skills such as critical thinking and agency. If in the future we are going to unleash change-agents in our world then we must put in the time now to develop student skill-sets by honoring the process of learning and growing. While it may feel as though this focus on skills is an additive to our content, it is actually something that can happen through the content we teach. Through lines of inquiry and reflection, we can teach students to “go meta” by asking them to think about their thinking in the moment, or directly after they complete a task.

Once we do this we can begin to shift the weight of expectations and assessments more heavily on a student’s ability to identify how they went about their work and provide logical and thoughtful explanations for how they arrived at an answer. This process allows us to better understand student thinking and also requires students to think more deeply about the content and themselves as a learner.

Help Develop Students’ Toolboxes

Every student has a toolbox–a series of techniques and resources available to them-and it is the job of us as teachers to help each child to develop an awareness of what tools are currently inside of that box, what tools they can add to their toolbox, and when and how to leverage those tools.

For a student to truly lead their own learning, they must first be able to reflect on themselves as a learner. What strengths do they possess? What techniques do they have in their repertoire? And what resources do they bring to their learning? This phase of self-exploration often happens early in the school year, never to be revisited again. We must continue this process of self-discovery throughout the course of the school year so that students are constantly reflecting upon what they know and can do, how they hope to grow and who and what is available to help them be successful.

Build student mindset muscles

Thanks to the work of Carol Dweck, we know that the brain is a muscle. So if we are going to build that muscle, then we must do reps of reflection. While every teacher will share that they feel strapped for time, there is an incredible value to building in “pause-points” throughout the day, week or unit. By asking students to think about their thinking we are helping them to know themselves as a learner and also we are helping them to identify “sticking points.”

From here we can begin to support them not only by allowing them to better anticipate challenges but also how to support them in their ability to tackle these problems when they arise in the future. This skill set is critical to student agency because it enables students to persist in the face of challenging work that we are asking them to think through; again highlighting that critical thinking and agency work must work in tandem.

While this task may feel overwhelming to many teachers, it can be broken down into small tasks such as journal entries during warm-ups, exit tickets, think-pair-share debriefs or content assignments that include student reflections.

Moving Through The Challenges

Navigating the intersection between content and skills truly requires teachers to be designers of their curriculum, to have autonomy to rethink what teaching and learning can look like in their classroom, coupled with the support to take up this work. This will require a collective effort from teacher education programs, professional development opportunities and support structures that allow teachers to collaboratively tackle these challenges.

As we move forward we must remain aware of our collective responsibility to prepare our students to solve complex problems, many of which are problems we cannot currently anticipate. However, if we can develop a sense of self and ownership amongst our students we can trust that, coupled with critical thinking skills, our future will be in good hands.

For more, see:

Jennifer Pieratt is the Founder and President of CraftED Curriculum and a former teacher. Follow her on Twitter: @JennyPieratt

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EdTech Ambassador Programs: Everything You Need to Know

By Guido Kovalskys

Within the first year of starting Nearpod, we had teachers coming out of the woodwork to help us build and improve our product – providing in-depth feedback, volunteering to help edit lessons, promoting best practices on their blogs, introducing us to other teachers in their school, and more. These teacher requests were invaluable, and we believed there was more untapped value for both the professional growth of these educators and the growth of our company. So, we identified our most engaged, dynamic users and invited them to join our PioNear program.

Starting the PioNears ambassador program was one of our best decisions during the early stages of our growth. Our ambassadors brought classroom experience, a deep understanding of our tool and its use cases, and an enthusiasm to developing and discovering best practices for using Nearpod. Let’s take a look at how these programs help both teachers and EdTech companies.

Why ambassador programs are valuable:

1) Educator-guided product development

If you want to develop amazing tools for the classroom, you need to work closely with and listen to teachers. Ambassador programs create a formal channel between product teams and end users. At Nearpod, our PioNears are in frequent contact with our product team: receiving early access to many new features, providing in-depth product feedback, engaging in user-testing, consulting on lesson and feature design and more. This way our team makes sure hard data is always complemented with anecdotal evidence of how real teachers are using our product – ultimately helping us build more useful tools for teaching and learning.

These insights keep us on track and accountable to our teachers and students. Jennifer Williams – a literacy specialist, professor, and an early PioNear – explains the importance of keeping educators at the center of product development:

“We are in a time in education where teachers need to be responsible, critical consumers and where companies need to be responsible and intentional in their design processes… For me, teachers and learners NEED to be at the center of EdTech companies. It is essential… I think ambassador programs open up the pathway. For the first time, I felt like my voice as an educator was not only being sought out, but also was being genuinely heard and amplified.”

2) Accelerate professional development of educators

It is essential to reward educators for their hard work, but in addition to direct compensation and other support (e.g., covering conference registration fees, travel support, etc.), it’s also important to focus on building a support system to help ambassadors grow as thought leaders. For us, this started with providing up-to-date and robust materials on EdTech trends and tools. We didn’t want to simply train ambassadors on our product, we wanted to support their growth as EdTech professionals. Williams explains the Nearpod approach: “As opposed to simple how-tos, Nearpod offers PioNears (and educators in general) a path to professional development that includes webinars, curated resources on new tools, contextualized blog posts, data driven field research, Twitter chats, [and more].”

Further, we knew it was important to create channels and spaces for educators to collaborate with one another and share best practices from their own schools and classrooms. We started hosting an annual PioNear Summit where we fly in our ambassadors from around the world to meet under one roof, gain insight into the company pipeline and collaborate with one another.

I have been blown away by the extent to which our ambassadors support each other: helping with upcoming workshops, filling in for one another in trainings, creating materials and best practices tips to share with each other, and more.

3) Improve the Quantity and Quality of Network (for both companies and educators)

At the end of the day, teachers really respect other teachers (probably more than your sales team!). Thanks to our PioNears, we’ve been able to lead an additional 500 trainings and workshops across the world, reaching over 10K unique teachers (many of whom hadn’t used Nearpod before). We’ve found that the workshops led by ambassadors – who have each had an authentic and powerful experience with Nearpod in their own classroom – are more relatable and impactful, and can help build more trusting relationships with school administrators. As PioNear Betty Jo Moore, a 6th grade Science and ELA teacher in North Carolina, explained:

“When I go to trainings, I listen to others’ stories and share my own: In my classroom, I’ve seen kids who have never spoken suddenly light up and get engaged…. People understand that I’m passionate and that I’ve seen real results, and I believe that makes a difference.”

Further, ambassador programs (after building up a reputation!) can help boost the reach and network of the educators too. Mason Mason, an education technology coach in Texas and an ambassador for Nearpod, FlipGrid and Atomic Learning explained that ambassador programs have helped him to learn, connect and grow:

“Because I’m a paid trainer who goes around the country providing PD for educators, it’s important for people to know what I can do. Being able to call myself an ambassador has actually become a big deal in the education technology space. It’s a badge of honor to carry and to be able to say that this is something that I’m an expert on. Being an ambassador gives me clout to go to places and speak on both the specific tool and also on the ability of education technology as a whole to transform the classroom.”

Tips for Starting an Ambassador Program:

  1. The program needs to make sense for the ambassadors even more than it does for you and your company! Frame the program – and program offerings – in terms of value add for ambassadors, and align these offerings to business goals.
  2. Let your early ambassadors help shape the program. We took a user-centered design approach by asking our early educator advocates: How can we support you in what you are already doing? Are there additional opportunities that you would like to pursue as a Nearpod ambassador? We measured the success of these early community initiatives, and doubled down on those that generated a positive return for us and for our ambassadors.
  3. Before kicking off, be aware this is a long term investment (and not a minor one!). Cultivating a community of dedicated, tight-knit educators does not happen overnight. You need to start slowly, find your champions, be intentional about process, and be willing to wait for the long term payoff. It takes resources that you could be using elsewhere, and results are not obtained overnight. This may be an issue in the startup world, but it should not be a prohibitive one.
  4. Once you commit, you need to follow through or else the program can backfire. Educators will quickly realize if you are not backing up your program with genuine time, resources and thoughtfulness. Our program’s success depended on dedicated operational, strategic and financial resources. In building this network, it’s important to do much more than just introduce impressive educators to one another and share a digital badge.
  5. Align your ambassador investment to business goals early on, and build systems to track the program’s ROI.

How Teachers Can Get Involved

If you’re an educator thinking about getting involved with an ambassador program but you aren’t quite sure where to start, here are a few suggestions from Josh Tappan, who has reviewed over 700 PioNear applications to date (Josh (@josh_nearpod) built our ambassador program from the ground-up, and you’re welcome to reach out to him if you have any questions about starting, growing, or engaging your teacher community).

1) Get to know the product inside and out. The more experience you have using the tool in a live classroom, the better. We look for heavy product usage (number of lessons created and taught, and number of students engaged) as a first indicator of your qualifications.

2) Start sharing effective teaching and learning strategies and tools with your peers. We look for educators who take the initiative to go outside of their role to promote effective instructional practices and technology tools. Specifically, we look for educators who are dedicated to helping their colleagues learn and grow: hosting trainings, modeling lessons, leading lunch workshops, working closely with the EdTech director, going to conferences, etc. 100% of our ambassadors were already major Nearpod advocates in their schools and district before becoming formal ambassadors.

“As soon as Nearpod started making a difference for me and my students, I started introducing it to other teachers at PD workshops and conferences. We didn’t have an instructional technology coach at our school at that time, so I unofficially took on that role and started helping other teachers use technology. I even invited my principal to my classroom to check out what I was doing with Nearpod and she was really impressed. So by the time I found out about the PioNear program, I realized I was already doing the work.” – Mason Mason

3) Get comfortable as a facilitator. Strong communication skills are essential as an ambassador. We need to make sure that you can present confidently and connect with a range of educators from different grades, subjects and backgrounds. Leading a local workshop, organizing an edcamp or presenting at a conference is a great way to start.

4) Your passion for your EdTech is rooted in a strong pedagogy. It is critical that you have a very clear understanding of the product and the ways in which it can be used to impact teaching and learning. It’s not about thinking an EdTech product has the coolest features or the most buzz, it’s about experiencing how that tool can transform classrooms and help students learn more effectively.

In Conclusion

If you are planning to contribute to an ambassador program – be it as an entrepreneur or as an educator – my best advice is to join for the right reasons. Don’t be disingenuous in your efforts to connect. As an entrepreneur, you have to really care about the educators and the students. You can’t say you are trying to grow an educator community with the intent to simply grow your tool and make money. If that’s your end goal, then you shouldn’t be starting an ambassador program. You need to care about building up a network of educators, connecting them and making a difference in the classroom.

At the same time, educators must be intentional about joining ambassador programs. Jennifer Williams shared this final piece of advice: ”Keep students at the center of your decision to join an ambassador program. It should really be about dedication of time and thought to elevate conversations and to help improve resources for student learning. If we want  to advance the work ahead of us, it can’t be about free t-shirts or shiny stickers.”

This post was written for Getting Smart in collaboration with

For more, see:

Guido Kovalskys is the co-founder and CEO at Nearpod and a former education fellow at Stanford’s Hasso Plattner Institute of Design. Follow him on Twitter: @GuidoNearpod